Marshal Jean-Baptiste JourdanArmy commander during the Revolution who became a Marshal of the Empire and Joseph Bonaparte's chief of staff
Born: April 29, 1762
Place of Birth: Limoges, Haute-Vienne, France
Legion of Honor: Grand Eagle
Imperial Nobility: Count
Died: November 23, 1833
Place of Death: Paris, France
Arc de Triomphe: JOURDAN on the north pillar
The son of a surgeon, Jean-Baptiste Jourdan enlisted in the army at the young age of 15. Incorporated in the regiment of Auxerrois, he was sent on campaign to support the Americans in the American Revolutionary War and he participated in the unsuccessful siege of Savannah. During this time in the Caribbean, Jourdan fell ill with a sickness that would plague him off and on for the rest of his life. In 1782 he returned to France to recover from this sickness and it took until the end of 1783 for his health to be good enough for him to rejoin his regiment. Discharged from the army in 1784, Jourdan returned to his hometown of Limoges where he set up a haberdashery shop and married a dressmaker.
With the arrival of the French Revolution in 1789, Jourdan was elected a capitaine in the National Guard of Limoges. Two years later he was elected a lieutenant colonel in the 2nd Battalion of Volunteers of Haute-Vienne and in 1792 his unit became part of the Army of the North. Jourdan led his men into action that November at Jemappes and then the following March at Neerwinden . In May of 1793 he was promoted to général de brigade, and only two months later he received a promotion to général de division. That August Jourdan fought at Linselles and commanded at Cassel, and then in September he commanded the center at the Battle of Hondschoote . During the battle he was wounded by grapeshot to the chest, but after Houchard was relieved of command Jourdan was nominated to replace him as commander-in-chief of the Army of the North.
Given the political climate of the time and the fates of his two predecessors, Jourdan's new command had its share of challenges. He was ordered to relieve Maubeuge which was under siege by an army led by Prince Saxe-Coburg. Carnot arrived to oversee the operation but Jourdan and Carnot disagreed about the best strategy, with Jourdan finally ignoring Carnot's instructions and going on to win the Battle of Wattignies . This victory forced the siege of Maubeuge to be lifted, but Carnot returned to Paris with a dislike of Jourdan. Jourdan was summoned to Paris in January of 1794 where the Committee of Public Safety vociferously attacked his conduct. He would have perhaps followed Houchard to to the guillotine except one of the representatives of the people with the Army of the North stepped forward to defend him and contradict Carnot's statements. Jourdan escaped with his life but was ordered into retirement and he returned to Limoges.
Less than two months later, Jourdan was recalled from retirement and appointed commander-in-chief of the Army of the Moselle. In April of 1794 he won at Arlon, and then in June his army was reorganized and he was named commander of the newly formed Army of the Sambre and Meuse. Jourdan's army moved forward and took Charleroi before winning the Battle of Fleurus . The enemy fell back after this loss, and Jourdan's army advanced, taking Brussels and Namur and winning on the Ourthe before taking Aldenhoven, Cologne, Coblentz, and Dusseldorf. In December of 1794 Jourdan left his command, probably due to illness again, but he returned to the army a few months later in March of 1795.
In 1796 Jourdan's army began a new campaign against the Austrians led by Archduke Charles. Jourdan's men crossed the Rhine, took Frankfurt, and entered Bavaria. That August he fought at Amberg but he was then beaten at Wurzbourg, forcing him to retreat to the Rhine. Having intermittently been sick, Jourdan resigned at the end of September but he was then named commander of the Army of the North in October. The next April Jourdan was elected a deputy of Haute-Vienne to the Council of Five Hundred, and then in September he became the president of that body.
1798 saw Jourdan resigning from the Council of Five Hundred and taking a new position as the commander-in-chief of the Army of Mainz. As the armies were reorganized in March of 1799, his command became the Army of the Danube. Jourdan and his men advanced that month but were defeated at Stockach and afterwards he fell ill once again and resigned his command. He returned to the Council of Five Hundred and was named inspector general of infantry of the Army of Italy.
Jourdan had no love for the Directory but when Napoleon seized power in the coup d'état of 18 Brumaire, Jourdan did not support him. Jourdan was then threatened with deportation but ultimately he was left alone. In July of 1800 he was named ambassador to the Cisalpine Republic and then in 1801 he became the administrator of Piedmont. The next year he was named a Councilor of State and then in 1804 he became commander of the Army of Italy and a Marshal of the Empire. In 1805 Jourdan received the Grand Eagle of the Legion of Honor and was replaced in command of the Army of Italy by Marshal Masséna.
In 1806 Napoleon placed his brother Joseph on the throne of the kingdom of Naples, and Masséna's well known greed led Napoleon to choose Jourdan as Governor of Naples. Serving in Naples, Jourdan became friends with Joseph Bonaparte and became his chief of staff.
Two years later in 1808 Napoleon sent his brother Joseph to Spain as the newly proclaimed King of Spain. Joseph requested Marshal Jourdan to remain as his chief of staff, so in August of 1808 Jourdan joined him in Spain. The next year Jourdan took command of the IV Corps of the Army of Spain, and he fought at Talavera where Marshal Victor ignored his orders. A few weeks later he won at Almonacid but he then fell ill again and requested to return to France. Once his request was granted, he returned to France that October.
In 1811 Jourdan returned to Spain as Governor of Madrid at Joseph Bonaparte's insistence. Jourdan was again made chief of staff to Joseph and given command of the small Army of the Center in Spain. The next year he was named chief of staff of all the French armies in Spain, however the other marshals refused to recognize this appointment and operated independently. In 1813 Jourdan was still attempting to support Joseph and coordinate the movements of the army when the French fought the British at the Battle of Vitoria and were soundly defeated. Afterwards, Jourdan retired to Limoges again.
In 1814 Napoleon recalled Jourdan from retirement and made him the commander of the 14th and 15th military divisions at Rouen. After Napoleon's abdication, Jourdan was named a Knight of Saint Louis by the returning Bourbons and left in charge of the 15th military division. Napoleon escaped from exile in 1815 for the Hundred Days and continued to leave Jourdan in charge of the 15th military division but also made him a Peer of France.
After Napoleon's second abdication, the restored Bourbons had Marshal Ney arrested for supporting Napoleon and wanted Ney punished. Marshal Moncey refused to lead the court martial, and therefore Jourdan was appointed the head of the council of war to judge Marshal Ney. Under Jourdan's leadership, the council determined that it was incompetent to judge Marshal Ney and he was instead tried by the Chamber of Peers and eventually condemned to death by firing squad.
Updated January 2017
© Nathan D. Jensen